What do Christians believe about this important figure?
What does ‘Messiah’ mean?
You may have heard the term ‘messiah’ in popular culture. The 18th century composer Handel wrote a choral work called The Messiah, featuring the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. People often use the term ‘messiah complex’ to describe someone who acts like they alone can save everyone and everything.
In Christianity (and also Judaism, which Christianity stems from) the term ‘Messiah’ relates to a very specific figure. ‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word – Hebrew being the language in which the Old Testament was first written. It has a Greek translation which gets used in the New Testament (which was first written in Greek). That word is ‘Christ’. Both these words mean ‘the Anointed One’.
In Old Testament times a few key people were anointed – usually with expensive, fragrant oil. Kings (i.e. national and military leaders) were anointed. Priests (i.e. religious leaders) were also anointed. This anointing was symbolic. It showed they had been set apart by God, for a special, God-ordained purpose.
What does the Messiah mean in the Old Testament?
Clearly several important figures were anointed. But over time, there arose a belief in one specially anointed person – a Messiah.
The Old Testament, which is a sacred text in both Judaism and Christianity, tells the story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, the Jews. God made a covenant with them – promised originally to Abraham and then ‘sealed’ after the Exodus when the law was given to Moses. They were chosen by Him to be a ‘light to the nations’, obeying His laws and providing a model of how people should live. In return, God would make them great as a nation.
The later parts of the Old Testament, or Torah, relate to a very specific period in Jewish history: the exile and return to Israel. The people of Israel had been conquered by enemy nations and forced to live in a foreign land. The Jewish prophets (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah) called it God’s judgment on Israel for living in a way that was against God’s laws and rejecting the covenant they had made. They had turned their back on their calling to be a light to other nations and God was punishing them.
But in between the words of judgment was the promise of hope. Although the situation looked bleak now, God would not leave them there forever. A special person – who had the strength and courage of a king and the holiness of a priest – would bring them back. This person would bring freedom from the enemies who imprisoned them. They would give them back their home. They would ensure peace and prosperity again, as it was during the golden age of King David. Through this Anointed One, God would live with them again.
How does this idea relate to Jesus?
It is worth noting that, at the time of Jesus, Israel was still not free. It was under occupation as part of the Roman Empire. So when Jesus, who was himself a Jew, walked the earth, the people of Israel were still very much hoping for the Messiah to come to save their nation from the hands of their enemies. There had been several groups of people who had raised expectations of fulfilling this role – for example, the Maccabees. But these uprisings and would-be Messiahs had been put down.
There is an important moment in the gospels (the eye-witness accounts of Jesus found in the New Testament) where Peter, a key disciple, has a moment of revelation about Jesus. Like most Jewish rabbis in that culture, Jesus had disciples who stayed with him and learned from him. They would absorb his teaching and do whatever the rabbi asked.
The gospels make it clear that Jesus was quite a controversial figure. Some people loved what he said and did. Others found it offensive and blasphemous. On one occasion, Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was:
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah [i.e. Peter], for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:14-17)
Peter here connects the Rabbi Jesus with the Jewish figure of the Messiah. And Jesus said and did things which got many others hoping that maybe, just maybe, he could be the one to restore political freedom to Israel. This might explain why so many people welcomed Jesus into the capital city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, hailing him in the way they would do a coming king. It perhaps also explains why, by the time he was arrested the following week, those same crowds had dropped away. It was clear that Jesus wasn’t going to seize control and instate himself as Israel’s true king after all.
But his disciples, who went on to become known as the first ‘Christians’, continued to believe he was more than just a rabbi and miracle maker. They lived and died believing Jesus was the God-anointed king and saviour. It was this belief which separated the early Christians – many of whom were Jewish converts – from mainstream Jews.
There is an interesting tension here. The Old Testament prophets seem to draw up one picture of the Messiah for a particular time and purpose. But the portrait of Jesus found in the New Testament gospels – and indeed history – doesn’t easily match this.
So why do Christians still believe in Jesus as the Messiah?
Jesus the Messiah – a Christian interpretation
Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah whom the Jews had been waiting for. In the original Greek translation of the New Testament, the word Messiah is written as ‘Christ’. So when Christians talk about Jesus Christ, they are not giving Jesus a surname. It is a title – a statement that he is indeed the Anointed One promised by the prophets, come to lead his people and bring them back to God.
Before we look at some of the ways Christians interpret the Jewish portrait of the Messiah it’s worth noting a very key difference in their thinking: who the Messiah came for. According to the covenant made with Abraham, the purpose of establishing Israel as a nation chosen by God was to glorify God in the world and model how life could and should be. The Messiah would effectively ‘reboot’ the call – and the promise that came with it.
But Christians believe that Jesus ‘Christ’ made a ‘new covenant’ which was now for everybody. So many of the big themes found in the Jewish concept of the Messiah are, in Christianity, translated into a much bigger picture: a king, a priest, and a peacemaker not just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world.
- A king
The Messiah is a kingly figure, closely connected to King David. The nativity story makes it clear that Joseph and Mary were both descended from King David, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King David’s hometown (think of the carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’).
In the New Testament stories of Jesus’ ministry he often talks about ‘God’s kingdom’. In the Old Testament this kingdom is a physical place on earth for the people of Israel. But the early Christians understood this kingdom as going beyond one place or people. This is part of the importance of Pentecost, where the unschooled disciples were given a supernatural ability to speak in different languages. Suddenly, people from across the known world could hear this message about God’s love and forgiveness in their own tongue.
Christians share this belief today. God’s kingdom, which Jesus ‘Christ’ came to establish and which Jesus himself is now king of, is made up of people from across the world who choose to follow Jesus. They serve him by obeying all he taught.
- A priest
The Messiah is a priestly figure. Again the nativity story hints at Jesus’ priestly role when he is brought presents of frankincense and myrrh. These precious spices were used by priests in the temple as an offering to God. The presents suggest that Jesus will be a kind of priest, leading people to God.
Priests were incredibly important in Jewish community life. They were the ones who could make sacrifices on behalf of the people, to deal with their sin and make them ‘right’ with God. (See this article on sacrifice for more information.) Christians believe that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for humankind’s sin when he died on the cross. This doctrine is known as the atonement and you can read more on this here.
- One who brings justice, peace and freedom
When Jesus started his ministry, he went to the synagogue, opened up a scroll and read words from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
And then Jesus concludes by saying, ‘Today, these Scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing.’ Now remember – Isaiah is one of the prophets who prophesied at great length about the coming Messiah who would bring an age of peace, prosperity and healing. This passage is a Messianic prophecy. That Jesus reads this, and points to himself at the end, shows he makes a connection between himself and the Messiah figure. The gospels go on to show how Jesus brought life to people whom he touched. He physically healed people. He told people about God’s love and forgiveness, available for all. (Many Christian thinkers point to the examples of Jesus healing Gentiles – or non-Jews – as evidence for this.) And Christians believe that this love and healing is still available to all, through God’s Holy Spirit.
But there is another way Christians think about this promise. Clearly the Jewish prophets had a very specific idea of what peace and justice looked like. They longed for freedom from earthly enemies, such as the Babylonians, and a return to their homeland. But St Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, takes these themes of peace and freedom further. He explains that there is a bigger problem for humankind. It’s not an earthly one, but a spiritual one: the on-going struggle with sin. The enemy we need saving from isn’t outside, but inside. We put ourselves and our desires first, and this causes all kinds of hurt towards God, other people and the created world around us. The rest stems from this.
But, Paul says, when Jesus died, he defeated sin (see the atonement). Now that sin is no longer a powerful problem, we have been set free to live God’s way, as God’s friends. And with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, who because of Jesus’ death lives with us and in us, we can join with God in bringing peace and justice (as Jesus did) to the wider world.